As Nigeria struggles to ensure food security and bridge the fish deficit of over 1 million metric tonnes, illegal trawlers from foreign countries continue to harvest in the coastal areas, depriving the country of much needed fish supply, and leading to revenue losses for indigenous businesses which should benefit from it.
Nigeria’s per capita fish consumption of 11kg is generally considered low, as against a global average of 21kg, yet there is not enough supply to meet national demand, making the country rely heavily on importation of fish.
The Nigerian domestic fish market, estimated at $1.75 billion annually, is also suffering from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, losing $1.3 billion annually in this way, along the coastal waters from Nigeria to Mauritania.
Olajide Ayinla, National president of the Fisheries Society of Nigeria (FISON) blames the situation on poor policing of the country’s territorial waters, a situation which according to him, leads to 33 percent losses for Nigerian businesses that should be harvesting from the nation’s waters.
“When it goes beyond our own shores and territorial waters, that is where the problem is. It means we need the cooperation of neighbouring countries, we ought to have an arrangement for better monitoring of our water bodies,” said Ayinla
Mabel Yarhere, Director, National Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, said in response to BusinessDay enquiries, that the major culprits of illegal fishing in Nigeria’s territorial waters are not only western vessels but also include neighbouring states such as Ghana.
“If you are coming within 200 nautical miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) you have to fly the Nigerian flag, and the naval police are always there to see what you are bringing in; that there is license to come into Nigeria. But, most times they are not policed. The navy does not have equipment to police these people,” said Yarhere.
A report this week, by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) identified two Ghanaian vessels participating in the trawling activities recorded in West Africa, however, they were not specifically named among those who made illegal fishing stops in Nigerian waters.
The major vessel that operated in Nigeria’s territorial waters was revealed through unique satellite tracking database by ODI as a certain Dutch operated reefer, which was flagged in the Netherlands, operating in several Western African EEZs including Nigeria.
In total, 349 trips were recorded by 35 vessels from destinations including Angola, South Africa (Cape Town), Senegal, Nigeria, Mauritania, Morocco (Agadir), Western Sahara (Laayoune); and all but one (from Angola) involved containers. Total imports of western African fish carried by the containers amounted to 118,701 Metric Tonnes, according to ODI’s report.
Satellite imaging records from 2013 showed that the particular “Dutch vessel” stayed in front of the port of Lagos, a major entry point for fish being imported into the country, for an entire day in August without calling into port. The vessel then sailed to the middle of the EEZ, stayed there and returned to Lagos, calling at port early on 16 August.
It remained at port until 19 August when the vessel departed for the south-east edge of the EEZ, some 200 nautical miles from the coast, where it stayed until 22 August. These patterns are consistent with the movement of a reefer on the lookout for fishing vessels wishing to empty their holds.
Yarhere had also explained that when illegal vessels come into Nigerian waters, “they harvest our fish and even empty their balance water. In every vessel there is a compartment where they have to put water to balance it. And inside that vessel there are pathogens, and diseases that would have been carried along, and you have to treat it when you get to your own territorial waters before you release it. But they release it here in our own territorial waters and we are not monitoring.”
This in itself also raises concerns on health and environmental sustainability for Nigeria’s water bodies.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) noted that Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing also threatens the food security of millions of people in the West African region. In Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal fish provides an estimated 45% of animal protein, and the kilos consumed per capita in these and other countries in the region is higher than the African average.
“Western Africa’s coastal fishery resources are operating well beyond the brink of sustainable utilisation, in part because of IUU fishing. More than 50% of the fisheries resources in the stretch of coast ranging from Senegal to Nigeria alone have already been overfished,” said FAO.
The current rates of extraction are driving several species towards extinction while jeopardising the livelihoods of artisanal fishing communities across a broad group of countries, from Nigeria to Senegal, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Mauritania, observed ODI, in its report this week.
The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) was reached to comment on what is being done to curb the menace of the illegal vessels but was yet to reply as at the time of going to press.
According to ODI, ending IUU fishing and developing strong national and regional fishery sectors would generate multiple benefits for development. Those benefits would not occur automatically. Governments in the region need to do far more to develop processing sectors equipped to add value to the fish caught in their waters, and to support regional trade.
Furthermore, Western African navies need to work more closely together to monitor and protect their coastal waters, especially in inshore territorial waters crucial to the communities that depend on coastal fisheries.